The Puppet Challenge Part 5: Philippa and Karen and the two Fridas

Philippa Robbins & Karen Godfrey

Philippa Robbins: Raising Frida

A few years ago on a visit to Mexico to attend the festival of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) Philippa visited the studio of Frida Kahlo. I recall poring over the photographs when she returned, entranced by the collections of folk-art and antiquities in Kahlo’s living and work spaces.

When Peter Slight came up with the theme of the Puppet Challenge, I think most minds turned to the expected. Fairytales and folklore. But when I began to think about it, I could see that Kahlo was not such a strange choice of subject for an exhibition themed to ‘Myths and Legends’.

She has certainly achieved a legendary status due in no small part to her extraordinary life. There was the traffic accident that nearly killed her and thereafter severely compromised her health, and her celebrated marriage to the painter/muralist Diego Rivera. From the former she mined what would become some of the most iconic twentieth century self-portraits… though they are so much more than that… of the artist in the centre of her universe. So there’s a case to be made for her being a self-mythologiser, both in the manner she presented herself in person… the vividly coloured and embroidered folk-costumes, the flower-decked hair, the robber-queen jewellery… and the astonishing art that celebrated her ‘self-creation’.

Philippa built a lot of puppets over the period leading up to the Puppet Challenge. Although only the Frida puppet was intended for it, I plan on showing the rest of the puppets in a later post, because they’re examples both of the artist’s creative thinking, and of her capacity to acquire new skills to develop her work. But for today, here’s her Frida glove-puppet.

Philippa’s technique for all her puppets has been to build them in brown paper gum-strip layered over rough forms of tin-foil and balled-up paper, a puppet-making technique we share. Last year at her kitchen-table, pre-Puppet Challenge, I modelled a glove-puppet of a cyclops and Philippa built her first glove-puppet head and hands. (We two have long been hatching a plot for a collaboration themed to our puppet interests.) Philippa has evolved an interesting technique of finishing her papier mâché in layers of blue kitchen-roll.

When dry (she hastens the process by the use of a fan-assisted oven set judiciously low) Philippa creates the faces by transfer-printing, often using photographs of old Hollywood stars collaged to create her characters. In this way her puppets have an intriguing, organic finish that imparts to the group a collective identity, as can be seen in this snapshot of ‘blue’ puppet-parts in the studio.

Below: assembling Frida

A pleasing quality of all Philippa’s puppets is her attention to detail in the matter of their clothes. She shares with Jodi Le Bigre a distaste for garments that are nailed or glued to puppets. (Jodi writes about clothing her puppet in the ‘process’ post at her blog, and I wonder whether this is an aspect the two makers have in common because of early experiences with dolls, the dressing and undressing of which can be such a significant ritual of ‘play’.) Philippa’s puppet has a canvas ‘sleeve’, made the way I recommended to her, that permanently holds the head and hands in the glove-puppet shape… if you will, the ‘body’ of the puppet… but then over the sleeve is a beautifully-made muslin shift (see below) worn beneath the carefully pieced together patch-worked dress. This puppet is not only good in the hand to work, but it also has a hidden visual aesthetic known only to her maker and to those lucky enough to get a closer look.

Karen Godfrey: Touched by Fire

Karen Godfrey also chose Frida Kahlo as the subject for a puppet, this time a marionette. She built a puppet theatre for her as the setting for the film, set-dressed as a Día de Muertos altar complete with skeleton jumping-jacks, sugar skulls and fairy-lights. Frida’s appearance, with her elaborate, flower-dressed hair-styles, her sweeping dark brows and an emphasis on extravagantly coloured and patterned folk-costumes, has clearly been a gift to the puppet-makers. Karen wrote to me in an early e-mail about the project, how much she was looking forward to creating puppet-Kahlo’s jewellery, a happy anticipation I’m sure the real Frida would have shared.

Karen writes:

“I had never made a movie before and was surprised at how easy it was to use the free software program of Windows Movie Maker on my computer. The most challenging part, besides making the Frida marionette, was taking the hundreds of photographs for the stop-motion film. It was not easy keeping the lighting consistant through the whole photo shoot. Sometimes the sunlight would change and the trees by my window would create shadows.”

Above: a still from Touched by Fire

“What I loved about the Puppet Challenge is that it led me to make the movie. I have always thought it would be fun to make one, and I had always wanted to create stage props for plays. Having my Frida marionette to create small scale props for was exciting. I especially liked making the props for the ‘phoenix rising’ scene in the movie. I was surprised at how realistic the night scene looked around the fire, and I was pleased with the shadows I created with a lamp and a cut out image of a bird.”

My idea to create a Frida Kahlo marionette started because I am inspired by how she painted for herself alone. She didn’t care whether other people liked what she produced, creating her art because she needed to. In today’s world many artists don’t feel it’s worth creating something if it can’t be sold. They feel like if they are not well known, then they are not artists. It was my goal to create this puppet and movie for myself first. It helped me to connect with the deeper meaning of artmaking. I know something was happening to me on a subconscious level as I created the symbols, images, and scenes in the movie. Also, being able to move Frida’s body helped me to connect with her story and legacy. In some of the stop-motion photos that I took of Frida, I was amazed at how goddess-like she became. I felt like something greater than myself was happening duirng the photo shoots.

Below: from drawing to puppet

You can watch Touched by Fire, HERE.

Below: a stop-motion frame from the film

33 thoughts on “The Puppet Challenge Part 5: Philippa and Karen and the two Fridas

  1. Pingback: The Puppet Challenge Part 13: Judy, Jennifer, Michael & Benjamin, Penny, Charlotte and Liisa | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. What a brilliant pair of responses to a mutual theme.

    I’ve had a thing for the blue heads ever since I first saw them here, and Karen’s video is sensational; I was captive throughout the whole thing. Wonderful to watch with rumbling thunder in the background..!

  3. Wow! These are both utterly awe inspiring projects. I just love seeing two interpretations of the same subject, both so magnificently realised. Heartiest congratulations Philippa and Karen.

  4. Philippa and Karen’s work looks glorious together….I love to see how different work evolves from a common theme. Both have exquisite modelling – I’m wishing now that I’d used papier mache for my puppets but thank you for the inspiration – I can’t stop making them now so I can widen things with your techniques (and others I’ve seen on this challenge – wonderful!). Both of you have woven Frida’s beauty and pathos together superbly.

  5. Such brilliant work – I love the transfer printing – so eerie – it looks like her face has been trapped inside the puppet. Somehow makes me think of how she must have felt – being in pain and trapped in her own body.

  6. All marvellous indeed, and a fitting tribute to Frida. But perhaps the image that will stick with me most is those disembodied puppet body parts with their transfer features…

  7. these are fabulous, i have never heard of a blue kitchen roll, but i love that frida has that tinge, i always associate her with blue, i guess the casa azul–but i am very intrigued, too, by this “transfer” process with the faces, how clever!! i am curious, curious about the process…especially as the surface to be transferred to is not flat–how difficult?
    at any rate, to me: miraculous!
    and the stop animation film of frida is fantastic! i love the way the puppet dances!
    another wonderful post!

  8. Given that Sunday (July 6th) was Frida’s 107th (?) birthday this post is timely.

    Gratitude to both artists; and thanks for offering fresh observations of this dynamic woman. Living in LA, there is a cult of Frida followers. This past Sunday I went to an exhibition devoted to her image, a shrine of icons to St. Frida… none as dynamic as these two wonderful puppets.

    Phillipa and I have bonded before over Mexico City, Coyoacan and the Casa Azul in particular; her puppets, all of them, remind me of the wonderful Judas figures Frida and Diego were so partial to. But what is blue kitchen roll?

    I was blown away (and driven to get to work on my long neglected marionettes ) when I first saw Karen’s film. Just a stupendous production. Kudos to you. What I love of Karen’s little being is the doll-like/toy-like quality she possesses. In Frida’s studio there is a cupboard chock-ablock with little toys. This puppet and its wonderfully baroque theater would be at right home.

    I agree with Karen in that Kahlo seems to have painted for herself… although she was critically successful as well. I know so many artists here that follow formula. Both of these puppets are from the heart. Kahlo, I bet, would have been delighted. A wonderful homage to a woman so many of us have loved.


    • Good observation about Frida’s birthday. I was not paying attention to that. Yes, I am curious what blue kitchen roll is too. I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what it was. I would love to see your marionettes, too!

      • Delighted to “meet” you, I admire your talents. Happy I am not alone in my blue roll befuddlement. My marionettes haven’t had their debut you, they seem to be shy at the moment. But they are based upon the Quiche-Maya “Popol vuh” creation myth. I hope you like them.

        • Wow, based on the Popol vuh creation myth! That is quite the undertaking. How many marionettes are you creating? I definately want to see them when they are finished. I checked out your website/blog, too. I like your work. You are quite talented yourself.

      • I know this is a response to an old post, but I just wanted to say that I wondered whether blue kitchen roll is the stuff found commercially, often for hand-drying? It might be available at Staples..

    • ‘blue kitchen-roll’ is my description for the paper-towel-roll that Philippa uses in her kitchen and studio. I don’t know who makes it and I don’t know why it’s blue. It’s surprisingly dense and heavy, though I think it’s an ‘economy’ product.

      • I know what you mean now, here it is sold at Home Depot-home improvement shops. I should have guessed. Makes such a pretty Brahman blue.

      • Oh yes. Now I know what you are talking about. I might have to give that a try some time. It is very effective.

      • In the UK it’s available from Halfords (car and bike accessories shop) – its the coarse paper hand towel for cleaning your hands of grease and is found in petrol stations too. It’s very forgiving and pliable when soaked in wallpaper paste and used as a top layer.

  9. I’ve been a fan of Philippa’s blue puppet people since first seeing them last year. I love that shot of all the puppet parts in Philippa’s studio 🙂

    (any hints when we can expect to see the collaboration between yourselves, Clive or Philippa??)

    I’m amazed how Karen has managed to not only create a lovely puppet but an entire world for her to inhabit in such a short space of time! – inspiring and staggering!!

  10. Pingback: The puppet challenge exhibition is on! | lizkingsangster

  11. I love the emotions conveyed in Philippa’s Frida, her creativity using transfer-printing technique to create the face, and the finishing layers of blue kitchen-roll adds to its charm.

    And Karen took the puppet challenge to another level with her brilliant video. I especially like how she interpreted elements of Frida’s paintings in her puppet and the video. I like the cut out paper puppets animation and Frida’s skeleton mask is just brilliant.

    It’s wonderful seeing the different approaches from two talented artists on the same subject of inspiration.

    • Hi Hussam. I loved your puppet as well. Have you seen the movie, “Big Fish.” In the movie they have an old hag with a glass eye. Some children in the movie go to her house and the one boy looks into her glass eye and finds out how he is going to die. It is a good movie.

      • Hi Karen, I’m happy to hear you like my puppet, I’ve seen the movie and I remember how astonished I was with this hag, it holds some of the charctaristics of Omena Elghoula, mainly the glass eye… I’m not sure if it was based on Elghoula character or if it was conicedntly a figment of Burton’s imagination.. I love this movie though 🙂

        • I had not heard of Elghoula before, so when I saw the movie, I thought it was such a scary idea/myth. I thought Burton came up with the idea. But now after reading the myth of Omena Elghoula, I am sure Burton must have heard of the story and he used it as a platform for his hag in the movie. I am glad you got to see Big Fish. It is such a good one.

  12. I’m so enjoying these daily posts of frankly amazing puppets. Thanks Clive for all your hard work putting it all together. I’m really interested in the different puppet types that people are choosing to make… for example here a glove puppet and a marionette for the same character both bring out quite different aspects of the personality. In my small experience of operating puppets, glove puppets can’t help but bring out the anarchic trickster energy, whereas marionettes can convey great poise in their movement. Undoubtedly these were both parts of Frida’s character.

    Very much loving Phillipa’s puppets’ expressions – they’re hilarious and sinister and brilliant!

    • Hi Liz. Yes, the backdrop is a painting of Frida I did years ago for Dia De Los Muertos. It was inspired by one of Frida’s paintings called, Memory. I was surprised at all of the props I already had in my house for Frida’s stage. I had created a lot of the props years before, so it was pretty easy to put together.

  13. Philippa’s faces have such a haunting quality that goes beautifully with the glove puppet technique – I think I remember she said these were the first puppets she had made, which is really something and makes me slightly envious.

    I love Karen’s film and what she got out of the project; it seems to sum up all that’s great about the Puppet Challenge and the other Artlog challenges as well, that getting involved prompts people to do things they have never done before and the results are fantastic. I’m in awe of the film. Inspiring and full of ideas.

  14. Wow, I am gobsmacked!! What an interesting post. Philippa and Karen are right, Frida Kahlo is/was a myth. I am also fascinated by her story, her politics and life-experiences. As a child (crippled by polio even before that ghastly accident) she was unique in her ways, sometimes dressing as a boy. The two artists have captured her essence in their individual ways. I love the way Philppa has presented her puppet in colourfully patterned fabrics. That bunch of puppets on the rack, too, is poignantly reminiscent of images we are currently seeing in the news of turbulent times in Mexico. The still from Karen’s movie looks tantalising, the backdrop especially. I have yet to watch it… my ipad doesn’t want to show it so I will watch it late tonight… I am greatly looking forward to it.

    I say it again, a wonderful post!

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